Wow, was this book right up my alley! I admit, I love a good apocalypse story (books and TV), The Last of Us being the most recent that’s tickled my fancy…and gave me a nightmare or two! Land of Milk and Honey: A Novel takes that love a step further by melding it, blending it, mixing, baking, stirring it with food porn.
“The tongue speaks the transporting language of pleasure.” Yes, yes it does! Without giving too much away, this is based in a dystopian world where fresh crops and livestock have been wiped out by a “smog” that covers most of the planet. Fresh food becomes a delicacy only for the billionaire class and our main character is in charge of cooking it.
My view isn’t so much about the plot though, which is intriguing in itself, but the language Zhang crafts. Her food scenes are so sensually described, so intimately worded. One line had me recalling a birthday party for a friend where instead of a cake we had a wheel of stilton: “I carry with me this image of how disgust became desire.” When the guests arrived at the party, the smell of the stilton as they first entered the room turned up their noses in revulsion until they saw the source and then they smiled and went for the knife and bread.
When Zhang came to Bookshop Santa Cruz on her book tour this week, she spoke of the inspiration for the book which was a mid-pandemic meal. Possibly the first gathering with friends around a communal table. The conversation was bleak, one was a doctor recounting the dark days of 2020, but then the food arrived. Everything shifted to a somewhat guilty and privileged pleasure. Do we deserve this? But also, what would life be like without such pleasures? MISERABLE!! We are allowed to enjoy food, right? Not only eat for sustenance? (Why else would I have this site?!?!)
The power that the book’s chef has is immense yet she lives like a prisoner.
“The confessions I came to hear amidst smeared napkins and bitter crusts were charged with a near-sexual intimacy…it was my had that pried from each diner’s chest the particular soft, wet muscle of their greatest desire, their deepest regret.”
Food can trigger visceral reactions, emotions, memories. “Once I heard a journalist say she did not know what she thought until she wrote it; I didn’t know my own mind until I tasted.” This is how I cook – by taste, smell, memory, not measurements and weight. Dishes can change mid-stream and I won’t even see it coming. I just had a Korean acquaintance tell me I “cooked Korean” when I said don’t measure. But I think every cuisine has those cooks. I cook by inspiration and instinct.
“A part of the cook always makes it to the plate, sweat or curl of hair, desire of doubt, ambition or joy…” Much of the reason I cook what I do is selfish. I know what I like and I know how to get there. Life is too short for bad food. “…whether we calculate or plan, in the end we have only the choice of what touches our lips before we go.”
Tonight I got a hankering for butternut squash ravioli. Maybe it’s the first inkling of Fall weather. But whatever the reason, something triggered that desire. Food carries power and many memories carry food.
The Land of Milk and Honey captures and explains the power in a unique, beautiful and sensuous story. Let’s hope the food porn apocalypse remains a wonderful fiction!!